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Socle du Monde Biennale

by Robert Barry

Heart Museum, Herning, Denmark

Overlooking the foyer like a benign if somewhat mischievous spirit, a large portrait of Piero Manzoni smiles proudly as he holds a tub of his own excrement aloft. Sold at the market price of gold (though now worth considerably more), the Merda d’Artista made pungent comment on the skewed relation between human production and the art market. A few feet in front of this image, dominating the entrance hall of Herning’s Heart Museum, sits the great bronze plinth of Manzoni’s Socle du Monde, with its upside-down caption inscribing it in homage to Galileo’s claim that the world itself is a work of art. Somewhere between these two works lies the history, and the conceptual thrust, behind this year’s Biennale, which groups its works under the title, ‘Between Cultures’.  Both pieces were created in 1961, the year Manzoni found what he called his ‘paradise’ in north-east Denmark. Aage Damgaard, an entrepreneurial local shirt manufacturer, began in the 1950s to invite a number of artists to his factory in Herning, providing them with space to work and money to live on – Manzoni was one such recipient.

The Danish textile industry has long since been outsourced to China, its only traces the sleeve-like curvature of the Heart Museum’s Steven Holl-designed roof, and an enormous collection of sewing machines (the largest in northern Europe), now used by fashion students at the Teko design school over the road. But something of Damgaard’s philanthropic spirit lives on in the dogmas of the Biennale.  Each of this year’s ten artists has been paired with a commercial enterprise who are committed to providing finance, materials and expertise but not otherwise interfering or attempting to influence the resulting work. T

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he artists concerned have responded to the partnership with varying degrees of propinquity, from Jens Haaning’s demand of the Nordea Bank for 280,000 Danish Kroner (around £32,500), the average post-tax income of a Danish family, to place in a frame on the gallery wall; to Marcelo Viquez’ (below) decision that, though he had no particular interest in his corporate partner Montana’s shelving units, nonetheless their CEO Peter Lassen was worthy of a starring role.

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The three elements of Viquez’ work comprise a video, whose poker-faced ritual sees Lassen dress the artist, from his underwear to full dinner suit; a glass case displaying the suit in question; and a photograph, somewhat in the style of classical portraiture, in which we see Lassen seated in a kind of throne, with the dinner jacketed Viquez standing beside him. The picture recalls images of black houseboys with their master, from the slave trade era – except that the artist’s hand rests pointedly on the businessman’s shoulder, complicating the picture’s implied power relations.  ‘I used him,’ says Viquez, ‘just like the museum uses me.’ 

Jette Hye Jin Mortensen claims she approached working with Jaeger, the kitchen utilities specialists, in much the same way that she had previously applied herself to collaborations with filmmakers, choreographers and composers. Her work involved the suspension of a series of glass panes, corresponding to her height at various stages in her life, onto which were projected scenes from an autobiographical screenplay. Looking askance down this corridor of glass, one sees the images of Mortensen’s actors refracted into a bright prism of colours. “When we see people in films,” says the fictionalised Jette of the projected image, “We tend to think our lives should be in movie-time.” 

Joachim Hamou, on the other hand, working with one of Denmark’s most right-wing newspapers, Dagbladet Børsen (roughly, ‘Daily Stock Report’), found it necessary to employ a more critical strategy. Generic phrases like ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘To whom it may concern’ were inserted somewhat innocuously into the pages of the paper in the same typeface as the usual headlines, working to destabilize the narrative closure of the reportage, without giving the publishers any sort of art product which they could then use to show off their cultural credentials. Simply allowing the papers to pile up in the gallery space as they were delivered, it was evident that Hamou’s interest was much more focused on his intervention into the daily life of the readers. He describes with glee the confused expression of one Børsen reader he spotted on the train earlier in the week. The apparently ‘quite outspoken’ representative from the paper (a kind of Danish Financial Times) only emphasized how little he understood the point of the work by complaining that it had been under-publicized.  Whether Mortensen’s actors or Hamou’s headlines, one of the prevailing themes to emerge from the exhibition is the use of some proxy who speaks in the artist’s place.

Christian Danielewitz, in effect, merely created a kind of stage, a darkened room full of laptops, each displaying a live feed of a different broadcaster’s rolling news (from BBC to Al Jazeera). Onto this scene, another artist, his Congolese namesake, Christian Botale (a regular collaborator since meeting two years ago in Kinshasa) was allowed to narrate his own story, of his family’s struggle against colonialism, in the form of a fictitious news bulletin. Whether performed live, printed, or in some way projected, many of this year’s artists have erected, Manzoni-like, their own ‘magic bases’ through which their chosen mouthpieces become living sculptures.  Manzoni aside, there is another spectre, somewhat less benign, haunting the proceedings. Pia Kjærsgaard, the Danish People’s Party leader, notorious for her vitriolic attacks on immigrant communities, hit the art press headlines recently with her demand for ‘clarity’ in the arts. Singling Merda d’Artista out for particular criticism, she claimed, ‘I think I can judge that shit is shit, and that shit in a jam jar is not art.’ Following the title ‘Between Cultures’, the topic of immigration in Denmark runs like a red thread through the exhibition halls. 

For Korean-born artist Mortensen, adopted by Danish parents as a child, ‘between cultures is my life condition’. Drawing attention to the Danish prohibition of dual citizenship, she calls her position, with reference to the work of theorist Gayatri Spivak, ‘an impossible … empty space in between’. Whether recognized by the Danish state or not, many of the Biennale’s artists choose to identify with some form of hyphenated nationality, and state attempts to regulate and control its immigrants and their assimilation into the host culture are a focus of critical attention across the board.  Bosnian-Danish artist Ismar Cirkinagic’s piece, entitled Fuck-off Money (after the colloquial term applied to the money offered to immigrants by the Danish state to leave the country), erects a lavish stereo system made by Dynaudio (which promises ‘Authentic Fidelity’). From the speakers comes a constant stream of music composed by immigrant composers, from Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz (1859-62) to Stravinsky’s Petroushka (1911).

While French-born, Copenhagen-based Thierry Geoffroy, asked what it takes to make a ‘good immigrant’ in a video, In Advance of a Broken Arm, which sees Eastern European and Middle Eastern residents sweeping up the droppings of the Queen’s horses as she parades through the streets of Copenhagen (it is the artist’s job, Geoffroy claims, to prevent accidents). In a further reference to Manzoni, the royal horse shit is then canned and displayed in a glass cabinet at the exhibition.  Geoffroy, who also goes by the mysterious title of ‘The Colonel’, was ever-present at the show’s opening, darting about filming the press and punters with a little handicam, dressed in bow tie and bright orange Adidas, looking rather like a Steve Carrell character. His work frequently ventures into a kind of meta-art, performing his own devised ‘art formats’ as ‘biennalist’ or ‘penetration’. The latter involves “penetrating” the display space of another artist – but asking first; penetration, he insists, ‘is not a hijacking [but] a civic act’ – and inviting other artists to join him (in this case, artists from Bosnia and the Lebanon, who took over one wall of the exhibition hall with crudely-daubed slogans and sundry found materials).  The Colonel’s final penetration of the evening, and something of a swansong for the whole opening, offered the assembled guests the chance to ‘dance and debate’. While Frank Sinatra sang ‘Strangers in the Night’ over the foyer’s public address system, Geoffroy insisted – sometimes physically – that all assembled grab a partner and waltz slowly while discussing the topic, ‘Are we going to have a civil war in Denmark?’

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Nedko Solakov at IB Gruppen

Though the theme seemed absurd at first, I had perhaps underestimated the degree to which Geoffroy had chosen this topic as a deliberately pointed provocation at this specific audience. The area of Jutland where the Heart Museum is situated is the heartland of the People’s Party’s voter base. And though no-one I danced with would admit to supporting Kjærsgaard themselves, several told me that their previous partner had insisted it was only the far right that were saving Denmark from civil war. Evidently sometimes it is not just our critical aesthetics, but equally our basest prejudices that must be voiced through the other. But if Manzoni’s Socle suggests the redundancy of human aesthetics before the sublime beauty of the world, Herning’s Biennale insists that art still has something to say.

About the author

  • Robert Barry's photo

    Robert Barry is a writer and musician based in Paris.